For a while the frock didn’t say anything, but after the tires met 26 southbound the seat creaked under him and he asked what the longest fare I’d ever pulled was.
There was this one time, I said, I took a dude from a bar in Portland clear up to a lake house near the Sound. Guy’d just gotten married, I said, and he didn’t want his wife to know how much he really drank, so he figured he’d just sleep it off at the lake house, deal with the fallout later. Four and a half hours one way, nine total all around, seemed like a better idea just to drive the interstate in a loop for that long. Wouldn’t have made any difference, dude coulda slept it off anyway, but he had a fan made of twenties and only thing I could say was “Yessir, here we go.”
Was there really a lake house? The seat had stopped creaking and all I could see was the frock’s jaw, working on something far back behind his teeth.
I dunno, I said. Like I said. I drove in circles a while and once I made sure he was passed out I pulled his wallet out and took him to the address that was on his license. Helped him in, shut the door behind me.
That was nice, the frock said.
Nice don’t come into it, I said. We don’t take fares out of state. Company policy — insurance somethingorother. Two-hour cap on all rides, anything more than that they gotta just get a bus. That’s the long and short.
Did you tip yourself? asked the frock.
Twenty percent standard, I said, and not a cent over. Probably he thanked me for it. Probably I saved a marriage. I don’t lose any sleep on that one. What about you? I said.
Hired your wheels, not your mouth, said the frock.
Fair enough, I said, but you asked so I answered.
The seat grumbled. Fair enough, said the frock.
But that wasn’t the longest fare, said the frock. I asked you what the longest fare you ever ran was, but you didn’t actually run that one.
Yeah, but it’s a better story that way, I said.
The frock didn’t say anything until we’d passed through Columbia. Once we slid past a certain exit he turned around in the seat and looked back through the back window. Nothing between me and the big grey now, he said, nothing but a few miles of asphalt and then that’s it. He wasn’t talking to me and he knew I knew that, so I just watched the dotted yellow and waited for him to let me in when he wanted.
That came a few minutes later. You ever had a fare like this? he asked.
Mister, I said, I don’t really know. I picked people up from hospitals plenty of times. Most of the time they’re not patients.
I’m not a patient, he said, well, snapped.
Okay, I said, sorry.
I’m not a patient, the frock said.
But you’re wearing a patient’s uniform, I said.
That doesn’t make me just a patient, the frock said. I’m a lot more than that.
Mister, we all are, I said, and the frock sort of laughed at that. Glad I got you to laugh, mister, I said, you sounded upset. Sitting back there, seat’s making more noise than you.
I’m in a lot of pain, the frock said. Staying moving makes me feel a little better.
I stopped to fill up. The air was thick outside, real moist and sticky in my nose. I told the frock this when I got back in. Air’s like breathing through a wet towel, I said as I pulled back onto the highway. Just taking a deep breath feels like work, you know?
Wish I did, the frock said. Might say I’ve been unemployed a stretch.
The pier was closed, of course, it was the middle of the night, but that doesn’t mean much at three in the morning in the offseason. The ocean was a dial tone from far away. Water splashed on the pilings underneath us. The frock didn’t say anything, just shuffled to the end and looked out at the water for a little bit. Then he went back to the cab and waited for me to finish my cigarette.
Am I your longest fare? he asked when we were headed back the way we came.
About half an hour ago, yeah, I said.
Did you know, he said, that when severely disturbed, catfish of the genus Acrochordonichthys may release a milky-white mucus-like substance that can kill other fish?
Nope, I didn’t, I said.
Some live in sand, he said. All the time.
Okay, I said.
Some animals just have all the luck, I guess, he said. And he looked out the back window again, still working whatever it was in his jaw. Shoulda been a catfish, he said.
I guess he was gone by the time I crossed back thru Columbia, because the seat stopped creaking. I got back to the hospital and told the receptionist that he was in my backseat. She said I’d need to stick around a bit. I said that was fair enough.